A Letter on Skepticism and Ethics

To continue our conversation from the other day I take it that you subscribe to a form of deontology, or, at the very least, accept the merits of such a perspective within ethics. The way you presented the argument in the specific instance of capital punishment by the state, drew from, and seemed to rest on, a number of basic, well-defined human values. For you without such values all talk of ethics is reduced to nonsense. Your position requires a handful of necessary conditions and presuppositions without which enlightened discussion cannot proceed. The example you elicited to explain your support for such a normative perspective is the Kantian system of ethics.

But let us take Kant’s well-known ethical postulate and principle, the categorical imperative. Does one honestly need to adhere to Kant’s epistemological edifice built upon the synthetic a priori categories of understanding to accept his basic ethical position? It is true the individual and social ethos of post-Enlightenment society is grounded in something like Kant’s categorical imperative. In fact, this principle of action functions as a robust ground for most theories of equality and universal emancipation. And only the most hard-nosed reactionary would deny such a principle for action. But accepting what amounts to a commitment to an egalitarian and secular ethos does not presuppose in the least holding Kant’s metaphysical schema with all its details sewn up into an articulate whole. As Hume earlier reasoned—and Kant cannot have skipped this point—habit and convention play as large a role in the particular epistemic view one holds as principles derived through pure ratiocination, even when these last depend on experience through the manifold of the senses. Whether there are or are not innate properties and categories of the mind therefore plays little practical role in the ethical view that one chooses to adopt. (The quandary over the mind as an emergent phenomenon is likewise neither here nor there in the practical sphere).

Which is to say, as I interpret it, that skepticism, and not only in the Humean mold, is a more “reasonable” position than the various post hoc metaphysical views of human understanding, even conceding the certainties afforded by broad and solid empirical experience. Such skepticism regarding the epistemic grounds of ethics is not inconsistent with embracing the mitigated truth of the “golden rule,” namely, to treat others as you would have them treat you. Refashioning this principle without the metaphysical or epistemological armature of classical thought in no way implicates one in a consequentialist or utilitarian logic, namely, what bodes well for the greatest number.

I am wary of utilitarian arguments since they underwrite “instrumental rationality” precisely in the way Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer ridiculed. Forms of “positivistic” knowledge lead to the pretension to know best by a coterie of experts. The “instrumental-practical” perspective is only one possible discourse within modern society. The more demanding and always more relevant is that which starts and ends with “human emancipatory interests.” The latter do not pose the question of freedom as the application of thinking to epistemic problems, but, in line with Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, urge us to transform and not merely interpret society. Without forcing a teleology on moral thinking the broad goal of this ethic is to lead to the expansion of the power and agency of the people, the people being understood not only as the majority of workers but also those marginalized by society. And this seems to me to be the most fundamental basis for a social ethics if a basis must in fact be found.

It is in this vein that Kant’s dictum to “treat the other as an end never as a means”—what has come to be called the “Kingdom of Ends”—acquires practical value, while proving that the ideation that grounds it comes after the practice. In Kant there is a labyrinthine intellectual apparatus supporting the dictum. But such philosophical argumentation it must be admitted is dispensable since it leads to a truism that was already a public opinion (doxa). The kernel of Kant’s system, as Foucault and others have realized, is not his systematic critique, but his anthropology.

The Golden Rule, acquired in the long history of western civilization, and which has analogues in other cultures, can be said to form part of the ethos, or what Husserl would call the “life-world,” of modern Western society. Does such an ethical conception ultimately need to be tied to a metaphysic, or epistemology, or ontology to function as a political “universal”? And if one does in fact wish to affirm a truly cross-cultural philosophical “universal,” then a more than local, Western metaphysical schema must be adopted. The vicious circle of grounding ethical “principles” therefore makes all claims to universality moot. Yet this leads to an idea that is different from what John Gray calls “agonistic pluralism.”

Recently scholars have labeled philosophical positions that refuse certainty regarding social, ethical and legal questions “anti-foundationalist.” Anti-foundationalism denies that there can be a metaphysical (or epistemological) basis for working out an ethics since the practical sphere is as important and formative in the elaboration of a “system of ethics” and its “principles” as is reason and rationality. A metaphysical position that believes the “mind” to have primary importance will always take the same mind as the basis for ethical understanding. This is the Cartesian prejudice lurking in so much analytic philosophy. In keeping with this “one dimensional” rationale need one point out that the philosopher’s bias is always bound up with another imperative to reproduce his or her occupation as a philosophical specialist?

To anticipate objections, such a position cannot in any sense be construed to be inherently “irrational.” It would be irrational if this ethical view came willy-nilly through the vital impulses, as a “feeling” of the will pressing into existence, in Schopenhauerian fashion; or alternatively, as a lighting-flash of intuition as described in Plato’s Seventh Epistle. Moreover, the charge of “relativism” leveled at anti-foundationalist ethics does not stick once one accepts the provisional status of any possible ethical principle for this specific historical time, something that is also a truism after the short modern era of disenchantment. And in this respect, the corpse of religion has not been saved by what, recently, was labeled the “post-secular” age—if anything, we are now entering another age of disenchantment. The revolution of historicism is still incomplete, one reason why Foucault still looms so large in the humanities. One can conceive of a number of “values” appropriate to an enlightened age without expecting them to be grounded in more fundamental sources of rationality, or in a putatively solid philosophic construction of the “synthetic a priori reason.”

I cannot in good conscience accept the normative claims made for ethical judgments since they invoke transcendental reason. Despite his radical historicism in other areas Jürgen Habermas, unfortunately, is forced by his own fealty to the tradition of philosophical rationalism to accept the transcendental ground of ethics. His attachment to truth, even “communicative truth” universalized as a “public” good, betrays the marks of metaphysical election and hypostatization.  The last hurdle for the social thinker is to do away with all supports, all crutches, especially when deemed necessary for the “reason of the state,” i.e. the reproduction of a homeostatic life-world against what are taken to be universal, violent human propensities.

On the other hand, and equally naive and unhistorical, one cannot accept consequentialist arguments as a source of ethical reason since in their “calculus of future action” such arguments rely on the authority of empirical “evidence” through the senses.More unacceptable still is the current mania for scientistic approaches, which limit research to statistical equilibriums, averages and trends. The quantitative “informatics” approach makes social thought closer to its dismal cousin economics than the noble pursuit of knowledge about human action it is meant to be. From every point of view the various modes of epistemic reductionism smack of special pleading forgetting everything that was once taken for granted as indispensable for human life; one thinks of those cultures whose knowledge base begins with the interpersonal, not the individual. In the Grundrisse, Marx likewise foregrounds the role that the “general intellect” plays in all social formations. The recent return to virtue ethics in analytic philosophy has forced philosophy to reassess the role of the affects and cultural mores in the elaboration of ethical principles. The renewed interest in the Ancients on their own terms by Pierre Hardot, and also Michel Foucault—in ideas such as the “care of the self”—is a promising approach to ethical questions, even those bound up with the social sphere.

Nevertheless every ethical view must consider the human body and civil society (what the Hegelian tradition in its promethean language terms “subjective consciousness” and “objective consciousness”). I will not here bring up the Cartesian split, so foreign to early forms of thought, which really only knew of the “body” (soma) and the “soul” (psyche), but not of a separate “mind” (cogito). What the ancient Greeks understood by dianoia (the Latin ratio) could not be separated from the nous (intellectus), an “intuitive” reason and understanding of the person. This is taken for granted by much of the history of Western philosophy, from Aristotle to Aquinas, and even into the Renaissance. One had to wait until Descartes for the splitting of the “whole human” into separate parts, mimicking the way money exchange split-off the worker from organic ties both to the land and to his or her lord. Again it is Foucault and those like him interested in delineating a new understanding of the human as a biopolitical “subjectivity,” and not a “subject” with a fixed essence, whose works touch on these themes. Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan are interested in overcoming the flaccid conception of the self inherited from Cartesian philosophy, albeit by working through the Cartesian philosophers.

It could be said, prematurely for a field still evolving, that virtue ethics explodes the social and political contexts of the terms that the Cartesian philosophers established. What has the post-Cartesian philosopher to say about the “person” (prosopon) as opposed to the self-reflexive “I”? By problematising the categories it operates with—using history, philology and hermeneutics—contemporary Continental theories offer radical re-readings of the basic positions of “classical” philosophy. The advantage of the “continental” approach as contrasted with the “analytic” is to always historicize ideas and concepts in order to be able to draw new and rich connections to present philosophical quandaries. Uncovering the truth is therefore not about certainty but rather about understanding the genealogical development of key ideas and concepts. Its method consists in disambiguating the terms of an argument from current biases and reading them against the historical grain. This includes bringing out the way common ideas are deployed within human institutions, what Foucault calls the “episteme” of respective ages, and marked by certain “regimes” of knowledge, power and discipline. Understanding emerges only after engaging the many possible discourses of power and placing them in their particular historical settings. Old scholarship on the other hand accumulated facts about particular moments in history leading to the narrow self-understanding of an age through naïve portraits of thinkers.

This brings one to the dialectic of theory and practice and the veracity of the idea that the ruling ideas of each age are those of the ruling class. The ideological dimension of the “sociology of knowledge” and ethics cannot be downplayed. If one is to be sufficiently “critical” then critique must be applied to the critique of society itself. The educator as Marx and Engels say also needs educating. And as Karl Korsch proclaimed, historical materialism must be applied to the methodology of historical materialism itself. Yet even such self-reflexive perspectives do not get to the most important point in ethical thinking when seen from a non-normative, post-foundationalist perspective. What is radical about the Kantian ethical claim for social theory is that reason itself interrogates the social from within, that critique is immanent. In other words, it does not invoke empirical supports, make transcendental claims, or draw on transcendental principles. I agree with you that the critical approach of Kant is the basic one of the Enlightenment since it recognizes the limits of human reason and rationality. But one cannot state that the truth it aims for is true in an apodictic, transcendental sense. Kant’s method is critical because it forces reason both to disentangle thought from what Adorno called “identity thinking” and also constantly interrogate the ever-increasing number of social reifications.  The refusal to understand the complex dialectical and historical dimensions of social categories leads to the myth that philosophy can grasp all aspects of the human subject sub specie aeternitatis. The claim is that philosophy may postulate a set of universally binding ethical norms; the absurdity of which is only reinforced by the desperation with which thinking tries to assert it.

That is why the neo-Kantian separation of “facts” and “values” is both valuable as an exercise in discrimination but in the end also insufficient, as the Frankfurt School very early recognised. Values are relative to historical context and contingent on a life-world whereas facts can be arranged in a logical sequence and subjected to endless analysis. The limitations of the latter approach are betrayed by the separation of thinking from the practical consequences of applying particular values in a given social world. One is therefore forced back to a dialectic that can incorporate the act of thinking a particular construction of values, a thinking that can find the point at which the social and the individual not only intersect but also mutually reinforce one another. And this requires a discourse of knowledge production and of power.

To repeat my position I argue for a radical, mitigated perspectivism, even going so far as claiming the merit of the co-existence of a multiplicity of epistemological accounts of any given life-world. This is a consequence, I argue, of a political commitment to freedom as the opportunity and ability to think independently without mental or habitual constraints. Beyond Nietzsche’s perspectivism and value “constructivism” one should vouch both for Deleuze’s affirmation of a multitude of “planes of immanence” and for the interpretative possibilities afforded by “philosophical hermeneutics.” Such a perspectivist account has much in common with what Paul Feyerabend once called “epistemological anarchism.” In Feyerabend, notably, there is no argument against the consensus view of “normal” science in its description of “reality,” only that in different historical periods such forms of scientific understanding will necessarily differ, even on fundamentals. And I mentioned in passing Foucault’s historicist thesis, namely that different eras exhibit different understandings and ways of knowing, what he calls epistemes. For example, past societies were marked by political sovereignty, then institutional discipline and now in our time, social control. Such accounts of social practice highlight the internal, institutional and legal transformation of ways of knowing and living in the world.

If I am pressed to lay my philosophical cards on the table I would have to declare my commitment to radical “nominalism,” arguing that the “real” or the “true” can only be understood through the categories of a mind thoroughly interpellated by the societal relations of exchange, power and knowledge. This is not a theory of the mind reflecting the world. Nor is it one that grasps the process by which the categories of understanding incorporate both intentionality and meaning-making as part of their very substance. Rather as a pluralist I would go further and posit a prism-like multiplicity of possible perspectives within the same mind and subject. I am not philosophically or psychologically questioning the integrity of the “self”—even if that is how many post-structuralists in fact read Husserl and phenomenology—but interrogating the social construction of an unchanging social “subjectivity.” It is the same way Althusser read Lacan and Derrida read Marx. Marx and Althusser were not attempting to decentre the individual and social revolutionary subject, namely the proletarian who has nothing to lose but her chains (since, surely, losing one’s personal identity could not feasibly be part of the emancipatory bargain).

Such a nominalism also leads to a radical skepticism not only about the possibility of a first, or indeed any, positive metaphysics but also about any univocal ontological perspective. The most egregious error in recent philosophy has been the return to ontology, including the determination to extract a political position based on one’s ontological predilections. For example, holding to “aleatory materialism” or “speculative realism,” or whatever other philosophy is currently faddish, is meant to endear one to the newest dissenting class fraction and help one step in tune with the coming revolutionary conflagration. After the death of the proletariat as the identical subject-object of history, the reasoning goes, there has been a need to resurrect a materialism of the vanguard. One is of course also obligated to forego the embarrassingly rigid periodisations of historical materialism in any new theory of political being, thereby throwing out what is valuable in the old merely for the sake of original thought and novelty. And then we dare proclaim the death of the subject.

The question is, if everyone is in fact a materialist in practice then what need is there for ever new accounts of materialist ontology except for conceptual dalliance? And it is this last Schillerian “play impulse” which perfectly characterizes the conjunction between philosophy and cybernetics in Deleuze’s works. Deleuze understood his own thought to be a provisional view of the world by metaphorising the fluid nature of capitalist society and temporality. There is no essence of being but only becoming. This process of becoming knows many “planes of immanence” through which different social actors respond uniquely to the same phenomenon. Deciding which interpretation sticks depends on a multiplicity of factors both subjective and objective. Wittgenstein understood something of this immanent fluidity of signification when he spoke of philosophy as a “language game.” But his work lacked direct concern with existential and social implications, including the alienation from “meaning” that such thinking represented. He was still within the realm of pure philosophy or should one say the fiction of pure philosophy.

I remain deeply skeptical about knowledge gained through methods of straight investigation and interpretation, especially those that deny out of hand an understanding of pluralism, or at the very least dialectical contradiction. Which is to say I hold to a “dialectical nominalism,” reading all categories as radically informed by both past and present social practices and knowledge formations and therefore irreducible to simple or universally quantifiable essences. Such a perspective is not that different to what Adorno called “negative dialectics.” In line with some of the thinkers of the Frankfurt School I affirm a utopian dimension to thinking, one that takes a number of social permutations of wish-images, or what Walter Benjamin called “constellations,” into one’s view of the current social situation. Walter Benjamin’s modernism sought encounters with “dialectical images” from the landscape of the industrial age, an aged marked by mass commodity production. Yet such images also service our post-industrial age by catalyzing the pure play of the individual and social imagination. This philosophy of transcendental images is related to Kantianism, but only in a very loose, and aesthetic sense. Benjamin’s dialektische Bild can be offset against Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ gods, which exist but have absolutely no direct influence on the world. Nevertheless the epicurean is forced to affirm their existence since they inundate the imagination with their pure, redeeming forms. That is to say one cannot construct a normative view based on utopian images of any kind.

The nominalist position I am arguing for, which as I said is also a form of skepticism and aligned with the perspectivism of Nietzsche, Feyerabend, Foucault, and to a lesser extent Max Stirner, Adorno, Benjamin and Deleuze, is at the antipodes to any philosophical procedure of truth finding, including systems like Heidegger’s which seek truth as “not-forgetting” (a-letheia) through the “clearing of being.” (However much one tries not to, one thinks again and again of Plato’s anamnesis). Following on from this, if the Kantian “noumenal” is inaccessible it signifies nothing. And if being requires the poetry of the philosopher or the philosophy of the poet then it is equally empty of social signification since it panders to something beyond the conjunction of self and world. Heidegger tried to think being through history and history as being but his ontology ends in reactionary cul-de-sacs. Being, as Parmenides at least honestly reasoned, is the predication of the logical irreducibility of things to their circumscribing limits (and does anyone honestly believe that he thought motion was a “mathematical trick” of the “One”?). Deleuze’s repetition touches on a totally different problematic and goes beyond such metaphysical finalities. Again the play impulse is the only “truth,” which is to say no truth at all. If the faithful insist on some “truth” behind the curtain then Whitehead’s “non-overlapping magisteria” can with good reason be adopted, since all it does is say matter is here and godhead there. And that is where one must leave it.

There are many avenues and ways of approaching the heterogeneity of “life worlds,” depending on particular circumstances and historical contingencies. Nominalism speaks against the positivist ideology of progress. For a historical or social understanding one must fall back on the epistemological perspective birthed within a particular historical conjuncture. Albeit for me to state the obvious that no science of such a phenomenon is even thinkable, even if many functionalists and systems theorists of complexity continue to believe that such a task is feasible. Yet there is still merit in something like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit which traces the coming to consciousness of social being and reads individual consciousness as the effect of socialisation in the long course of history, what Benedetto Croce eponymously called History as the Story of Liberty.

Without needing to invoke the speculative niceties of the metaphysician there is still one way of broaching the question of skepticism in political thinking. Here I will initially say something quite shocking. Leo Strauss can become a light and beacon for critical theory. The interpretative method of Strauss reads the possibility for thinking as a privilege reserved for the few, for the cognoscenti. All the systems of positive philosophy, including all the metaphysical “systems,” such as Spinoza’s that necessarily grew out of a religious milieu, are so many accommodations to the exoteric need for political form. According to Strauss without binding the polity to a solid theory of natural law and sovereign statehood the body politic descends into chaos. Behind the various schemas of the foundations of legality, legitimacy and truth is a “hidden” philosophy reserved for the enlightened few, namely those skeptics who see through the myth of religious dogmas and forms, including the personal conception of a deity. The Socratic ignorance taught by philosophy is not a form of positive knowledge for Strauss but a negation of historical fabrications. The few know in advance that truth de-mystified is much too difficult for laypeople to digest. It is therefore reserved for philosophers. For the sake of maintaining the peace of the realm the people constantly must be bombarded with saving myths and other “opiates.” Religion and other traditions and ideological bromides are “necessary illusions” that serve to ensure the cohesion of the body politic. For those whose vocation it is to think such illusions are of course dispensable. The Socratic line of thought in which all knowledge starts with ignorance leads to a thoroughgoing skepticism regarding metaphysical and ethical questions. In their supreme ambiguousness and ambivalence it is Plato’s dialogues, and not Aristotle’s lectures, that are the model for such a philosophical ruse by the great philosophers through the ages. It need hardly be added that one cannot accept Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political philosophy. It is useful for critical theory in situating the question of political “being,” that is political life, within its respective historical contexts, and showing how misplaced it is to expect metaphysics or ontology, or even ethics, to do the work of thinking when the fact is that all the social categories one works with (less so the purely logical ones) are radically inscribed within the historical eras in which they are deployed. 

The message in Spinoza, according to Strauss is that his system is on the one hand publicly theological—albeit still controversial—but on the other irreligious, in fact anti-religious (as his detractors always claimed). His dethroned God signifies the contemplation of nature and the dignity of rational man. Freedom for Spinoza is therefore not only an individualist ethic based on contemplation and the cultivation of a rational and virtuous disposition but also the freedom from pre-modern theological dogma. His highest teaching is the creation of a new knowledge based on the inner light of reason alone. Politically Spinoza is a democrat, out of all keeping with his time. Democracy best serves the realization of individual autonomy and independent thinking. His ethics is not grounded in self-sufficient reason nor is it based on logically derived principles, however much his geometrical method may seem to indicate. He is adamant that the expression of the affects and the expansion of individual power are integral aspects of human experience and understanding. The conatus therefore represents the expansion of the individual’s potency in the world. Here one might think that there must be specific values attached to such a realization of autonomy and power. Yet it can be argued that values are super-added, that they come post festum, and are dependent on historical mores and specific circumstances, whether political, social or economic. Such a revolutionary philosophy of power and potency, a potentiality realisable by the “multitude,” already goes against Leo Strauss’s interpretation of hermetic enlightenment for the few and the expedient need for a natural law. In fact the spontaneously generated power of the multitude can act as a bulwark against all forms of political elitism and cultural snobisme. Antonio Negri and Etienne Balibar have made such a theory of the multitude and its potentiality for engendering a new democratic politics—a conception drawn from both Spinoza and Niccolo Machiavelli—the basic linchpin in their respective philosophies.

Out of all the current options for understanding ethics, the anti-foundationalist approach is the most promising. For a political miracle to transpire Arendt maintains that only clear thinking and philosophical judgment are required. Political upheavals cannot be imputed to narrow social concerns and party politicking. Such modes of deliberation seek at most to alleviate specific, local problems and are tied to the “microphysics” of control in the hands of experts. The radical contingencies of political transformation imply that political practices can neither be prearranged nor history be predicted. What can be expected from the people is the cultivation of a general ethos, an antagonistic one to the status quo, including a collectively activated conception of the good or a new sensus communis. But a good without any final essence or being. The flux of political being escapes all normative straightjackets. And the solidarity within the multitude continues to name one of its unencumbered virtues.

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